Friday, May 12, 2017

Living his jazz mentors’ advice

Bass player and educator Brandon Robertson practices what he teaches.

Brandon Robertson
Robertson earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in music performance at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his mentors had sage advice. “They’ve all told me to go out and make my own name for myself. Make my own success,” Robertson says. “I just want to be positive, be professional and play as well as I can play.” 

He’s a busy addition to the Southwest Florida jazz scene since moving here summer. He performs regularly at area jazz venues in addition to his day job as an adjunct professor of instrumental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. He has subbed the regular bass player in the Count Basie Orchestra. (More on that later.)

Robertson, 31, is the lone jazz faculty member at FGCU’s Bowers School of Music & the Arts, where he just wrapped up his rookie year. He teaches jazz techniques and jazz ensemble courses and directs FGCU’s popular Basketball Band. The latter kept him mighty busy as the men’s and women’s teams both played in post-season tournaments.

In his jazz techniques and jazz ensemble courses, he works with a variety of students, some of whom have scant jazz experience.

“I find ways to connect to the jazz idiom so they’re not just reading charts,” Robertson says. “I explain the historical context of each piece they perform – and challenge them to do more research themselves into the music, be it from Erroll Garner, Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman, Louis Armstrong or Count Basie, for example. It was so rewarding to see how much these students got into it. It was such an accomplishment to get them to start listening.”

His strongest bit of advice, the one he lives, is to “try to make my students keep reaching for it. I tell them ‘practice like you’re performing.’”

After earning his bachelor’s degree at FSU in 2009, Robertson took time off to gig locally in and around Tallahassee as well as tour with a variety of bands. The Tampa native entered grad school in 2013 where his program included a direct independent study with Scotty Barnhart, Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet in FSU’s Jazz Studies program.

Barnhart is also musical director of the Count Basie Orchestra. He suggested Robertson get real familiar, real fast with Basie band charts, and started using him as a sub when the regular bassist, Trevor Ware, was unavailable.

Barnhart became the primary mentor for Robertson. “He kept telling me: ‘You never, ever, want to play mediocre. You have to keep pushing yourself.’”

The latest push involved Robertson’s persistence in applying to perform at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The free event draws upwards of 100,000 people over four days at the end of May, including Memorial Day Weekend. Polite rejections merely reinforced in his mind that he wasn’t ready yet.

“Two years ago, I reassessed the music I was playing, started writing charts with a lot of pop influences and made jazz charts out of them,” Robertson says. It paid off. In late March of this year, he got a call that he was in the lineup this year.

Robertson’s band will open the the Breezin’ Stage at Jacksonville Landing, one of the festival’s four outdoor downtown stages, on Sunday, May 28. The festival’s headliners that day, principally on the Swingin’ Stage, the main stage a few blocks away, include pianists Joey Alexander and Chick Corea with their respective trios, plus The Commodores.

The Brandon Robertson Quartet will perform the leader’s original music in Jacksonville. His band includes three other former FSU grad students: pianist Zack Bartholomew, who is now working on his doctorate at the University of Miami, and two New Orleans-based players. They are drummer Gerald Watkins, who plays in Jason Marsalis’ vibes quartet, and tenor saxophonist Boyce Griffith, who has subbed in pianist Marcus Roberts’ 12-piece band The Modern Jazz Generation, which consists of younger musicians who all went to FSU.

If you can’t catch Robertson in Jacksonville, be sure to hear him on Thursday nights in downtown Fort Myers when he performs with the Dan Miller-Lew Del Gatto quartet at The Barrel Room. He also fills in now and then with saxophonist Craig Christman’s Starlight Memories Band.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CDs by Lili Añel, Ron Boustead, Laura Dubin, Diego Figueiredo, Steve Khan, Joachim Kühn, Sarah Partridge, and The Three Sounds.

Lili Añel, Another Place, Another Time (WALL-I) 
Philadelphia-based singer-guitarist Lili Añel comfortably straddles the line between jazz and folk music. She tells riveting stories in a knowing voice, taking great chances with notes and phrases as she’s wrapped in the comfort of a finely honed jazz band. Her trio includes Dale Melton on keyboards, bassist Chico Huff and drummer Jonathan Whitney. The gems on her latest project include the title track, which features special guest Larry McKenna’s conversational backing on tenor sax, and Añel’s take on Blind WiIllie Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (with Melton adding a bit of grit on Hammond B-3 organ). There’s also a fine version of Jef Lee Johnson’s “Traffic Jam in a One Horse Town.”

Ron Boustead, Unlikely Valentine (Art-Rock) 
West Coaster Ron Boustead is a hipster who can swing the heck out of a song. Unlikely Valentine is an even split between familiar jazz standards and tunes that Boustead co-wrote. His nimble vocals take on a vocalese feel but he has no interest in scatting (a notion underscored on his humorous original “I Won’t Scat” (“when it’s time to blow through the changes, that’s what this band is for.”) Other gems include the title track, co-written with Bill Cunliffe (who co-produced the project with Mitchel Foreman), the wistful “Coffee,” a breezy romp through “Autumn Leaves” and a jazzy take on a most unusual tune for a jazz project: the 1960s pop hit “Love Potion #9.” He also has a fine interpretation of Bob Dorough’s “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers.” Boustead’s band features an ace L.A. horn section with Bob Sheppard on saxophones and flute, Bob McChesney on trombone and Ron Stout on flugelhorn.

Laura Dubin Trio, Live at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival (self-produced) When it comes to the skillful art of jazz piano, Laura Dubin takes no prisoners. She’s an imaginative player who kills it on every tune. She lapses into delicacy here and there, but favors the powerhouse side. That’s no surprise, since her major influences include Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner. This two-CD set, recorded at last summer’s major jazz festival in her upstate New York hometown, feels like a personal survey of 20th century jazz piano styles – with occasional forays into re-imagined European classical music. In addition to the standards, it includes 10 originals, most of them inspired by some of her piano heroes. Dubin gets solid support throughout the project from drummer/husband Antonio H. Guerrero and bassist Kieran Hanlon.

Favorites include her Tyner-ish original “Thunderstorm,” her scorching take on Michel Camilo’s “On Fire,” a Chick Corea medley blending “No Mystery,” “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” and “Spain,” and her delicate Bill Evans tribute, “Waltz for Bill,” which segues into her interpretation of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely.” One of Dubin’s more unusual jazz-and-classical medleys pairs Ravel’s “Prelude from Le Tombrau de Couperin” with her Latinized take on “My Favorite Things.” It will be interesting to see how Dubin’s sound evolves as she settles into a more personal style.

Diego Figueiredo, Broken Bossa (Stunt) 
Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo is an astonishing master of his instrument, simultaneously exuding unbridled musicality and sheer joy. On this newest project, recorded two summers ago in Copenhagen, we hear him playing solo and in a splendid variety of duo and trio formats. Those duos and trios are particularly intriguing because they showcase Figueiredo’s skills as a conversationalist responding to the other performers. 

He teams with tenor saxophonist George Garzone and singer Cyrille Aimée on the wistful Sidney Bechet ballad “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” and later performs in duo format with Aimée on “Caravan” and Garzone on his own composition “Flor Azul.” One of the more unusual trios teams him with Paolo Russo on bandoneon and Ruslan Vilensky on cello on a Portuguese fado-inspired original, the exotic “Fadinho.” The upbeat title track features the guitarist with subtle support from bassist Romulo Duarte. Solo spotlights include his tunes “Lelê” and “Samba dos Três Dragões” (Samba of the Three Dragons), and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Doralice.” Each of them reveals his technique of simultaneously playing melody, harmony and bass lines.

Steve Khan, Backlog (Tone Center)
Guitarist Steve Khan’s latest project puts a Latin/Afro-Cuban slant on a wide range of material not usually heard with that Latin tinge. Sources include Monk, Ornette Coleman, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Greg Osby, Stevie Wonder and The Great American Songbook. The latter features include a gorgeous update of “Our Town,” which Khan’s father, Sammy Cahn, co-wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen. Khan’s quintet, with bassist Ruben Rodriguez, drummer Mark Walker, percussionist Marc Quinones and conguero Bobby Allende, is joined on various tracks by special guests. Keyboardist Rob Mounsey joined the band on four tracks and orchestrated five more. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer guests on Coleman’s “Invisible” and trumpeter Randy Brecker is aboard for Coleman’s upbeat but rarely heard “Latin Genetics.” Vibes player Mike Mainieri joins for Hutcherson’s “Head Start.” Wonder’s bluesy and soulful “Go Home” adds a bit of fire to the project. Khan’s warm, upbeat phrasing and his interplay with this fine band are superb.

Joachim Kühn New Trio, Beauty & Truth (ACT)
German pianist Joachim Kühn loves to take familiar melodies and transform them into something original through his improvisations. He did that for three decades with his original trio with Jean-François Jenny-Clark and drummer Daniel Humair. Now he’s doing so with his new trio with bassist Chris Jennings and drummer Eric Schaefer. In addition to a solo piano take on onetime band-mate Ornette Coleman’s “Beauty and Truth,” Kühn  digs into a bit of Gershwin (“Summertime”) and Gil Evans (“Blues for Pablo”). The material from non-jazz sources includes Stand High Patrol’s reggae-dub track “Sleep On It” and two tunes from The Doors: “The End” and “Rides on the Storm.” He also recasts Krzysztof Komeda’s “Kattorna” and “Sleep Safe and Warm,” a melody from Roman Polanski’s film “Rosemary’s Baby.” This is powerful stuff.

This is a most unusual project and perhaps long overdue. On this, her fifth recording, New York-based singer Sarah Partridge explores the songbook of folk and pop singer Janis Ian, putting each in as jazz context with her own interpretations and excellent improvisations from her band. It includes producer/pianist Allen Farnham, bassist Bill Moring, drummer Tim Horner, trombonist Ben Williams, saxophonist Scott Robinson and guitarists Paul Meyers and Ben Stein. 

Partridge and Ian co-wrote two new songs here: “Somebody’s Child” (about homeless men and women) and “A Quarter Past Heartache.” Musical poet Ian also shares her vocals on the latter, a swinging, offbeat song about a breakup. (“I tried to swing a melody, you never could keep time.”) In addition to Ian’s classics from the 1960s and ‘70s, including “Society’s Child,” “At Seventeen” and some tasty scatting on "Silly Habits,"  Partridge tackles some of her newer material. “Matthew” is about the 1998 gay hate-crime beating death of Matthew Shepard. Annotator Didier Deutsch calls it “a modern-day ‘Strange Fruit.’” It’s powerful. The project includes the first recording of a new Ian-penned love song called “Forever and a Day.” It’s a beauty.
The Three Sounds, Groovin’ Hard: Live at the Penthouse 1964-1968 (Resonance) 
This recording is a must for jazz lovers who miss the bluesy, funky, soulful piano playing of the late Gene Harris. These are live recordings that Harris and his trio, The Three Sounds, made during four separate engagements at Seattle’s defunct jazz club, The Penthouse. It teams Harris with bassist Andy Simpkins and a succession of drummers: Bill Dowdy, Carl Burnett and Kalil Madi. Favorites: a Harris original, “Blue Genes,” and two compositions that have not been released before on any other Three Sounds recordings: Harris’ “Rat Down Front” and Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette.”

Friday, April 28, 2017

Oh, have times changed in Newport

There was a time after the first phase of the Newport Jazz Festival (1954-1971), that jazz pretty much was a dirty word in Newport. The city, known as a playground for the super-rich, was a Navy town transitioning into a tourist mecca. 

George Wein
The jazz festival lost its luster after 1969 and 1971 riots by beer-swilling rowdies in the city, including gatecrashers who brought the festival to a premature end in '71. Producer George Wein took his festival to Manhattan but retained the NJF name. Conditions weren't right for a return to Newport until 1981.

Jon Batiste
Don't blame the 10-year absence on the festival itself. That was the time of the rock revolution, and the little city by the sea didn't have the capacity to deal with huge crowds of people, particularly rowdies who weren't there for the music.

The festival did return in '81, with a subdued ambience and a new setting - Fort Adams State Park overlooking idyllic Newport harbor. Newport again embraces jazz - and the companion Newport Folk Festival - in a big way.

There is a big sign of just how embraced it is these days. Wein will receive an honorary doctorate from Salve Regina University in Newport, and pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste,will deliver the school's commencement address on Sunday, May 21. Batiste will also receive an honorary doctorate. Batiste is musical director for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and appears with his band Stay Human.
Christian McBride

The 2017 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival will be here before we know it, with a three-day schedule of music at Fort Adams (four stages) and a Friday night performance at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in downtown Newport. The latter event will feature singer Rhiannon Giddens plus Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue.

The huge Newport lineup has something for everyone.

Maria Schneider
I'm particularly looking forward to these particular groups and a few more:
  • the Maria Schneider Orchestra
  • NJF artistic director Christian McBride's Big Band, with surprise special guests
  • Pianist Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party
  • The trio of pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esparanza Spalding.
  • Hammond B-3 player Joey DeFrancesco's band The People
  • Drummer Antonio Sanchez and Migration
  • The 20-year-old collective One For All, which features tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trombonist Steve Davis, drummer Joe Farnsworth, pianist David Hazeltine, trumpeter Jim Rotondi and bassist John Webber
  • Singers Cyrille Aimee and Cecile McLorin Salvant
  • The new quartet Hudson, consisting of Hudson Valley residents Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier
  • Pianist David Torkanowsky (one of several players who will be featured in the intimate Storyville  club in either solo or small group settings)
  • Pianist Cyrus Chestnut's trio
  • Tenor saxophonist Benny Golson's quartet with pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Carl Allen
Golson, now 88, is the grand old man in this year's lineup. He made his Newport debut 60 years ago (Saturday, July 6, 1957) as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always a night with musical surprises

You never know just what's in store when the Dan Miller Quartet performs on Tuesday nights at the  Roadhouse Cafe in Fort Myers FL. There are always musical surprises, and that's a good thing in this case.

That's just what happened on April 17 when the Tuesday night series concluded its season-long run. (The Roadhouse will be closed on Tuesdays from now through the summer).

But back to last night. Trumpeter Miller has been working steadily for several years with this fine band, which includes Joe Delaney on piano, Don Mopsick on bass and Tony Viigilante on drums. All four of them have fierce musical credentials.

And they have a terrific time playing a wide range of jazz - from Great American Songbook standards to lesser-known tunes from the jazz/bebop canon. They were having such a good time last night that the planned 50-minute opening set was more like 90 minutes before they took a break.

There are two surprises on this gig. 

1 - You're never sure what talents might sit in. On this particular night, tenor saxophonist Lou Califano, a long-time player in Atlantic City, joined the band for the last two tunes of the first set and was in the mix for the rest of the night. 

2 - You're never quite sure where each announced tune will lead, thanks to the hip piano artistry of Delaney, a Dave McKenna protege who developed his career in the Boston area and returns to Cape Cod for gigs in the summer.

During his solos, and sometimes while trading four-bar or eight-bar phrases with the other players, Delaney seamlessly drops in familiar melodies from other tunes to underscore a feeling or add a touch of whimsy. It doesn't happen on every song, but some tunes occasionally become four or five in one.

Here are a couple of examples that stood out last night:

On George and Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good," Delaney wove in a snippet of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." 

On the band's exploration of "Flamingo," Ted Grouya's exotic 1940 ballad first recorded by Duke Ellington with singer Herb Jeffries, the pianist dropped in a bit of "Poinciana."

When they played Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," Delaney's solo wound down with a salute: "Thanks for the Memories."
Thanks indeed!  

Snowbirds and year-round jazz lovers in southwest Florida are fortunate that Miller (originally from Chicago), Delaney (from Brockton MA), Mopsick (from Linden NJ via San Antonio), and Vigilante (from Philadelphia), decided to make this area their home base.

It's been a pleasant discovery since moving here more than five years ago, having retired from northern winters, that the region is blessed with many such talents.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It's JAM time again. Get your jazz on.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month - and it is flying by.

The Smithsonian Institution decreed the month's status 16 years ago as a way to spread appreciation for - and interest in - the music genre. Many activities now find themselves under that celebratory jazz umbrella.

The National Endowment for the Arts moved its annual NEA Jazz Masters induction concert from January to April, and, six years ago, UNESCO added International Jazz Day to the mix. That global celebration closes the month on April 30. It reaches more than 190 countries with thousands of performance, education and community service programs in cities and town large and small.

So how are you honoring Jazz Appreciation Month this time around? 

Here are a few suggestions:
  • Support live music. Go to at least one more jazz event this month than you usually do. Heck, increase the level by one a week.
  • Take a friend or friends to those concerts. It's a great way to turn somebody onto jazz who previously had only a casual appreciation for the music.
  •  Buy more an extra recording - exceeding your usual purchasing level.
  • If you've got a collection of jazz recordings, take the time to dig back through them and revisit some favorites that you may have neglected for a while.
  • Compile your own list of "Desert Island" recordings - those 10 or 12 recordings that would be must haves should you be heading out on an adventure.     
  • Catch the April 30 "live stream" on the web of UNESCO's Global Concert on International Jazz Day. This year's all-star event will be held in Havana, Cuba. The 2016 event, co-sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, was held at the White House in Washington, DC.
The 2017 program at the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Aonso will be live streamed worldwide (at goodwill ambassador Herbie Hancock and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés are the artist directors for the event.

The international roster of performers for the sixth annual Global Concert also includes Ambrose Akinmusire, Melissa Aldana, Marc Antoine, Richard Bona, Till Brönner, Igor Butman, Regina Carter, Kurt Elling, Kenny Garrett, Takuya Kuroda, Ivan Lins, Sixto Llorente, Youn Sun Nah, Gianluca Petrella, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Antonio Sánchez, Esperanza Spalding, Tarek Yamani, Dhafer Youssef and others.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An evening of artful exuberance

In the right hands, Dixieland jazz is more of a feeling than a specific repertoire. It’s not what you play, so much as how you play it. Bob Leary’s sextet closed out the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2016-17 concert season exploring a wide array of vintage material that had toes a-tapping.

Bob Leary
The band mined quite a few trad jazz classics and early pop hits along with a variety of New Orleans jazz staples at the Cultural Center Theater in Port Charlotte on Monday, April 10. The band included Leary on rhythm banjo and guitar, and occasional vocals, cornetist Davey Jones, clarinetist Jim Snyder, trombonist Pat Gullotta, bassist Don Mopsick and drummer Steve Bagniuk.

Davey Jones
The evening featured exuberant solos and strong ensemble work by the three horn players. Each added swinging, whimsical accents throughout the evening, particularly from Gullotta’s trombone and occasions when Jones and Gullotta went head-to-head with plunger-mutes on their horns.

Pat Gullotta
Each band member received generous spotlights during the evening. They included Jones’ trumpet artistry on “When It’s Sleepytime Down South” and the Bix Beiderbecke hit “Singin’ the Blues.” Snyder’s clarinet artistry was featured was on “Linger Awhile,” a ballad first recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1923.

Leary, Snyder

The night also included “That Da-Da Strain,” “Up a Lazy River,” Sweet Georgia Brown,” the Louis Armstrong late-career hit “What a Wonderful World” and “Mama Inez,” which was performed in a Cajun zydeco-style without either accordion or washboard.

Leary sang “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” in addition to two staples from his collection of nonsense tunes. The latter includedHuggin’ and Chalkin’,” a 1945 song by Clancy Hayes and Kermit Goell that was a hit for both Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Leary described it as “one of the worst songs ever written.” That comment makes one wonder why he keeps singing it. Simple: it gets laughs.

The other zany inclusion was his falsetto take on "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," accompanied by just Mopsick on bass. The song was an early 1940s hit for both Horace Heidt and The Ink Spots. Mopsick was featured on bass and vocals on another nonsense lyric hit rarely heard today, Slim and Slam’s “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)."

The evening’s other New Orleans-rooted material included “Bourbon Street,” “Royal Garden Blues,” Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble” and the rousing concert closer, “South Rampart Street Parade.”This was Leary's second Port Charlotte appearance as a bandleader. His group was last here in March 2013. Toes were tapping then, too.
Leary, Snyder, Bagniuk, Jones, Mopsick, Gullotta